Cover Story

Merchants Of Soul: A Trip To Chipotle And Outside Lands With Spoon

As they always do, Spoon made They Want My Soul with their own money rather than accepting an advance from a label. It’s one of the ways they maintain that stubborn independence Daniel prizes so much. Still, for five records straight that process has been a formality; they’ve always returned to Merge, one of the world’s biggest and best indie labels and the company that helped pull Spoon out of a tailspin at the turn of the century. The backstory has become the stuff of indie-rock legend: After Matador, another titanic indie label, released Spoon’s 1996 debut Telephono and 1997’s Soft Effects EP, Spoon made the jump to major-label Elektra for 1998’s A Series Of Sneaks only to find themselves dropped four months after the album came out. Daniel famously responded by writing “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now” and “The Agony Of Laffitte,” a pair of songs spitting venom at Elektra A&R man Ron Laffitte, who the band believed had betrayed them after pledging his loyalty. Had Merge not stepped in to help Spoon dust themselves off and move forward with 2000’s Love Ways EP, the band might have ended right there. In the ensuing 15 years, Spoon have become one of the label’s flagship bands.

Considering Spoon’s horrific experience with the major-label system and their long, fruitful partnership with Merge, it was shocking to hear that They Want My Soul would be released on Loma Vista, a label that, when the deal was announced, was part of Universal Music Group. Last month, Loma Vista shifted allegiances to the independent Concord Music Group (with UMG still handling distribution), so They Want My Soul still technically came out on an indie label. In some ways that makes the breakup with Merge even more surprising, but in truth Spoon were rekindling a relationship that dates back even earlier. Loma Vista founder Tom Whalley tried to sign Spoon in 1995 when he was working for Interscope, and when Spoon were shopping They Want My Soul two decades later, he was still interested in working with them. “I think he’s a real fan, a big-picture music guy,” Daniel says. As for Merge? “We love Merge,” Eno says. “They put out five of our records. They worked super hard and we worked super hard on all those, and we’re really proud of them. But it really did feel like with the break and the type of record this was, that maybe if something good came along, we should try to do it.”

As if to quell doubts about their loyalty to independent music, Spoon announced the Vinyl Gratification program. Daniel says he’s constantly asked to kick bonus tracks and rarities to big-box retailers and digital music vendors as part of marketing deals, and he wondered why he couldn’t extend similar benefits to the little guy. “The places where I like to go buy records are always being left out of that,” he says. Thus, fans who pre-ordered They Want My Soul on vinyl from independent record were immediately issued a limited-edition 10-inch containing three songs from the album. Spoon found other creative ways to promote They Want My Soul, such as a “mystery mailer” program that involved sending prizes to random fans and culminated with a creepy interactive musical theater event at New York’s McKittrick Hotel the week the record came out. If that sounds more like something those fearless freaks the Flaming Lips would do, well, maybe Spoon aren’t so predictable after all.

***

Thirty-two days after our Chipotle date, I am riding in a golf cart with Daniel, Alex Fischel, and Spoon’s tour manager, Mike. We are in Golden Gate Park, speeding away from San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival toward some secret forest enclave where a local radio station has been hosting intimate acoustic sessions for contest winners. When Daniel and Fischel step onto the makeshift stage, they notice a drone hovering behind the audience, capturing their performance on film, which mostly thrills them and only creeps them out a little. They play three songs from They Want My Soul: the Ann-Margaret cover “I Just Don’t Understand,” with Daniel strumming an acoustic guitar and Fischel doing Little Richard things on his keyboard; “Inside Out,” with Fischel playing pensive keys and Daniel belting it out with extra sensitivity, as they did for a recent web-only Tonight Show session; and “Do You,” with both guys on guitar, locking into those dense chord progressions Spoon occasionally employ when they’re latching onto a brisk groove.

On the golf cart, I ask Fischel how being the new guy in Spoon is working out for him, and after Daniel unleashes a brief flurry of jokes about “minimal hazing,” he warmly notes that Fischel is especially good at meeting new people. When Fischel balks at that notion, Daniel enthusiastically assures him, “You’re one of the best!” as if the thought of Fischel not clicking in Spoon was never even a consideration. The others seem to have taken to Fischel too; Daniel says it took them only a few hours to understand Fischel’s appeal as a musician and a person. “Once they met him, everything was just awesome,” Daniel recalls. “It’s never been easier.” Harvey later refers to Fischel as “our new kid brother,” a fitting description considering the broad grin and childlike energy he brings to every performance.

Spoon had been inviting a rotating cast of fifth members to join them on stage anyhow — Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, White Rabbits’ Stephen Patterson, Jessica Dobson, and others — so they figured they might as well bring somebody on board full-time. Plus, as Pope notes, an additional member added to the sense that this was a fresh start for Spoon. With a fifth musician came new ideas and new possibilities. It was just a matter of choosing the right person for the job, and after their tenure together in Divine Fits, Fischel was someone Daniel could trust. As a result, Daniel’s career is now deeply intertwined with Fischel’s. He’s is the only guy besides Daniel who plays in both Spoon and Divine Fits, and as Angelenos they’re the only members of either group who live in the same city. (Eno lives in Austin, Harvey in Dallas, and Pope in Brooklyn; Divine Fits mates Dan Boeckner and Sam Brown live in Sacramento and Columbus, respectively.)

Later, once we’ve returned to the backstage area, I find Daniel and Fischel in the trailer watching Slipknot videos on YouTube. Daniel says he’s trying to learn the difference between Slipknot and Godsmack. I don’t realize at the time, but he’s probably scoping out the competition: They Want My Soul will go on to debut at #4 on the Billboard 200, one spot below Godsmack’s new 1000HP. Fischel recommends they watch notorious goofball Nardwuar’s interview with Slipknot. “Who’s Nardwuar?” Daniel asks. They load up the clip and cackle, then move on to Nardwuar’s encounter with the Wu-Tang Clan. Under a tent just outside the trailer, Pope and Harvey are entertaining old friends with beer and snacks from the trailer. Eno is playing the part of the cool rock ‘n’ roll uncle, showing off his souvenir liquor bottle (presented to Outside Lands performers in a miniature guitar case) to his grade-school nieces. The Flaming Lips are in the next trailer over, so Wayne Coyne is under the same tent munching a salad in his trademark leisure suit, getting ready to put on a bodysuit depicting the human muscular system with a handful of tinsel dangling from the crotch. He’ll later hobnob with Harvey about recording with Fridmann and borrow the flowers out of Spoon’s trailer for use in the Lips’ psychedelic stage show. It’s all very chill and a little surreal.

The casual demeanor continues up the staircase and onto the stage, where a crowd of thousands awaits. The members of Spoon stroll loosely to their instruments and ease into “Knock Knock Knock” in front of a humongous bluish banner depicting They Want My Soul’s album cover. From there they skip across the discography to 2007’s “Don’t You Evah” and 2002’s “Small Stakes” and circle back through the years. As they bounce between new and old songs, the fresh material already feels classic, and the classics sound fresh. There is an internal diversity to the set — even among the new songs, ballsy rocker “Rent I Pay” deploys a three-guitar attack while the hip-hop-informed keyboard float “Inside Out” features no guitars at all — yet it’s all part of the same unified continuum. They’re decades removed from the scrappy kids kicking out hyperactive post-punk, but you can make a case that Spoon are still aging into their glory days.

They’re playing the part of conquering heroes today, budding rock ‘n’ roll legends performing indelible music for an ocean of people. Daniel trades grinning glances with each bandmate throughout the show. At one point he launches into a magnificent leap, legs kicked backward, guitar pointed skyward. During a rollicking run through “The Underdog,” Eno tosses his shaker what must be 20 feet in the air and back down into the arms of a sound engineer who looks like Ben Folds. Everyone is having a blast, which is typical of Spoon concerts these days.

“I’m loving doing these shows,” Daniel says. “I think in the last few months we’ve done some of the best shows that we’ve ever done. I know that to be true. So I think this one’s got some legs to it.” They Want My Soul certainly seems primed to keep the band on the road much longer than Transference did. More importantly for Daniel, the new album already feels like a landmark addition to Spoon’s canon. As ever, he’s utterly confident about that. “I’ll always say that the most important thing is the records you make, the songs you write. Doing those shows is just sort of the payoff.” He cuts himself off: “Well, the payoff is making a great record you can live with for the rest of your life and feel fucking amazing about. We’ve done that.” Again.

[Britt Daniel photos in New York by Ryan Muir. Spoon photos in San Francisco by Moses Namkung.]